If proof were needed that good things come to those who wait, then devotees of Japanese cinema will find it in Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats, the much anticipated second feature from Yosuke Fujita following his delightful debut with Fine, Totally Fine (2008). Fujita has not been entirely inactive since his first feature won plaudits on the international festival circuit – including the audience award at the Udine Far East Film Festival – with further credits in the form of the television movie Saba (2008) and a segment of the comedy anthology Quirky Guys and Gals (2011). However, it’s a sign of the creative inertia that has befallen the increasingly corporate Japanese film industry that an idiosyncratic talent like Fujita needs half a decade to realize a theatrical feature while directors who are happy to churn out manga adaptations or big screen versions of television series can work on several projects per year. More prolific filmmakers may have access to the kind of studio budgets that guarantee an avalanche of ropey special effects, but money simply cannot buy the winning combination of deadpan comedy and genuine humanism that Fujita once again offers with Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats.
Since moving to Tokyo ten years ago, 32-year-old Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima), who goes by the nickname “Fuku-chan”, has resided at a shabby apartment complex called Fukufuku Flats where he happily spends his spare time painting kites while serving as a mediator when disputes break out between his neighbors. Fuku-chan covers the rent by painting buildings and gets on well with his fellow workers, especially Shimacchi (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), who is always pestering his friend about his lack of love life. Although he is keen to participate in social activities, Fuku-chan recoils from such occasions when Shimacchi tries to set him up with potential girlfriends, suggesting a past trauma related to the opposite sex. Across town, Chiho (Asami Mizukawa) wins a photography competition and decides to leave her corporate career to pursue her dream of artistic achievement; it gradually becomes apparent that she attended high school with Fuku-chan in rural Tochigi Prefecture and that she played a crucial role in a prank which left her already socially ostracized classmate perpetually wary of any romantic interest. Feeling the need to belatedly apologize, Chiho tracks down Fuku-chan and an unlikely relationship develops.
As in Fine, Totally Fine, there are some laugh out loud scenes, such as an opening fart gag which sets-up Fuku-chan’s role as the consummate problem solver, Chiho’s private lesson with her photography idol who turns out to be as lecherous as he is pretentious, and a meal at an Indian restaurant suddenly turning into a survival exercise when Fuku-chan and Chiho infuriate the proprietor by requesting water to go with their extra spicy dishes. Yet while Fujita has a penchant for absurd situations that have the potential to escalate into farcical hysteria, his work remains grounded in the private struggles and occasionally fraught social interactions of relatable characters whose fundamental qualities transcend their flaws. Perfectly played by comedienne Oshima with close-cropped hair and spot-on male mannerisms, the androgynous Fuku-chan is as affable as he is vulnerable, capable of tremendous generosity towards those who are also emotionally isolated yet prone to childlike outbursts when the past rears its ugly head. By calming the tension between two fellow residents of Fukufuku Flats – paranoid former panty thief Nonoshita (Iida Asato) and snake-owning Ivy League graduate Mabuchi (Tateto Serizawa) – Fuku-chan creates a small social group in which he feels comfortable, but in doing so further insulates himself from the rest of the world, much to the annoyance of the tactless but genuinely concerned Shimacchi.
It’s actually the verbose Shimacchi who enables Fujita to express a concern that remains bravely unresolved: as Chiho has hurt Fuku-chan before, will she do so again once her fascination with her former classmate wears off? After some coaxing, Fuku-chan agrees to be the subject of her photography book, and starts falling in love with the very person who had scared him away from such emotions. The somewhat open-ended conclusion that Fujita arrives at suggest that joy and sorrow go hand in hand as it is only by acknowledging the capacity that people have to hurt one another that helpful relationships can flourish.
As much as Fuku-chan is the central protagonist, Fujita’s deftness as a writer and director ensures that the film plays more like an ensemble piece with the narrative casually unfolding as a series of vignettes in which every character has a an arc that dovetails nicely with Fuku-chan’s development. Nonshita’s sudden behavioral shifts when in the throes of extreme paranoia and Mabuchi’s tendency to weep at gestures of kindness raise laughs, but these moments become more than comic asides as the are used to reveal individual frustrations while expressing Fujita’s belief in the value of companionship. The supporting cast play well off Oshima’s innocence, with Mizukawa’s negotiating her aspiring photographer’s potentially conflicting personal and artistic impulses while Arakawa is terrific as a fiercely loyal friend who nonetheless finds himself unable to comprehend aspect of his drinking buddy’s personality. Fine, Totally Fine cast Arakawa as an immature slacker with dreams of building a truly terrifying haunted house, and it’s nice to see Fujita using a prior collaborator in a markedly different role rather than simply having him perform a variation on what has worked previously.
Warmly crafted, but never to the point that it smothers its characters in cloying sentimentality, Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is a disarming slice of life from a filmmaker who understands that people are endearing because of their foibles, not in spite of them. Patience may indeed be a virtue, but it will be completely understandable if anyone who watches Fujita’s charming second feature finds themselves wanting his next outing to come around as soon as possible.